From specialty shops in Rome to supermarkets around the world, lovers of Italian olive oil are in for some sticker shock this year, with prices due to jump by as much as 20 percent.
The combination of bad weather and pests hit the harvest in Southern Europe, most of all in Italy, where production is halved from last fall. That’s pushing up Italian wholesale prices by 64 percent as of mid-February compared with a year earlier, which translates to shelf price increases of 15 to 20 percent in Italy.
In other countries, the ultimate price increases will depend on several factors — such as how much retailers take on the costs themselves and the change in currency values. The U.S., for example, is likely to see a more modest rise in price as a stronger dollar keeps a lid on the cost of imports.
Italy’s harvest was especially hard hit by the combination of early rains that knocked buds off the trees and the threat of an olive fly that forced an early harvest, further cutting yields. Wholesale prices of olive oil from Spain, the world’s largest producers, are up a more modest 10 percent, with yields similar to last year’s.
Vincenzo Iacovissi, the owner of the Sapor d’Olio olive oil shop in Rome, says sales have dropped, though he’s tried to ease the shock for customers by explaining why prices have gone up.
“When there are increases of 15 to 20 percent there is some impact on sales. However, explaining the reasons for this increase has in part helped to make up for this,” Iacovissi said.
Italians collectively consume about 35 percent of the world’s olive oil, leading Spain at 30 percent, and that affinity makes them pretty resilient as consumers.
Flaminia Leoni, a 50-year-old mother of four, buys 80 to 100 liters of olive oil a year for her family and says that at most she will consider substituting lower quality olive oil for extra virgin for cooking — but not on the table, where olive oil is a staple giving accent to pasta, meats, salads and vegetables.
“I buy it more or less always at the same price, in truth, maybe a euro more. But I haven’t found this enormous growth in price,” she said.
Cedric Casanova, the owner of an Italian grocery in Paris, said he was hoping to get 30,000 liters of olive oil delivered, but received just 8,000 liters. He will have to rely on leftover stock from last year to help make up for the remaining difference — and absorb some of the price increase himself.
“I’m working with a standard price, by trying to assume the cost myself,” he said.
With global stocks down just 14 percent, no one is predicting general olive oil shortages, even with a 75 percent increase in consumption of olive oil over the last 25 years as demand pushed into non-traditional markets. The market for olive oil in the period has grown by two-fold in the United States, seven-fold in Britain and 14 fold in Japan, according to Italy’s Coldiretti farm lobby, even if continental Europe remains by far the largest market.
Italian olive oil is more vulnerable than that of other major producers to climate shifts and pests due to its varied topography, from hills in the north to larger groves in the south. This also lends great variety to Italian olive oil, where unique flavors are derived from a combination of the terrain, topography and the more than 400 olive varieties, according to Nicola Di Noia, an olive oil expert for the Coldiretti farm lobby.
“We have hundreds of different varieties of olives that are more difficult to defend compared with Spain or northern Africa, where there are big groves that are easier to manage,” Di Noia said.
He said the challenge is educating consumers about why they pay for quality.
“We need to learn to choose oils with awareness. Extra-virgin is the juice of a fruit. The primary material from which it derives is very important. Therefore, oil should be tasted and smelled,” he said. Colleen Barry & Maria Grazia Murru, Rome
Cooking on deadline by Katie Workman
THYME AND YUKON GOLD POTATO GRATIN
I have a recipe for a potato gratin in my last cookbook, “Dinner Solved!”, that I firmly stand by. Here is another that I firmly stand by. And I plan to come up with more such recipes to firmly stand by because I am committed to reminding all of us why gratins are one of the best things that could ever happen to a potato, ever.
This is a rich gratin, made with all cream, no milk or even half and half. I’m not apologizing, just explaining. In general, I like my indulgent dishes flat-out indulgent, and my healthier food in the form of broiled fish, or salads. And I don’t have a problem with the two sharing a plate. This gratin, for instance, would be lovely next to a piece of roasted salmon with a peppery green salad alongside them.
If you have a mandolin and the inclination to use it, please do, and you will get lovely, paper-thin slices for a sultry and elegantly stratified gratin. If not, use the slicing blade in your food processor or a sharp knife; the slices will likely not be as thin, but that’s A-OK.
Start to finish: 1 hour 30 minutes, serves 10 to 12
2 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon minced garlic
3 pounds medium Yukon Gold potatoes
1 1/2 cups shredded Gruyere cheese
2 tablespoons minced fresh thyme
1 teaspoon coarse or kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
How to cook it:
Preheat the oven to 400 F. Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.
Combine the cream, butter and garlic in a medium saucepan and bring to barely a simmer over medium high heat. Remove from the heat.
While the mixture is heating, peel the potatoes and slice them very thinly.
Combine the cheese, thyme, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Spread out half of the potatoes in the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with half of the cheese mixture. Repeat with the remaining potatoes, and then the remaining cheese mixture. Pour the cream mixture over the potatoes, and press down on the potatoes to make sure they are mostly submerged in the liquid.
Bake on a lower rack in the oven for about 60 to 65 minutes, until the top is golden brown, and the potatoes have absorbed most of the cream and are very tender; a knife should slide in easily. Let stand for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.
Nutrition information per serving:
486 calories; 349 calories from fat; 39 g fat (18 g saturated; 1 g trans fats); 88 mg cholesterol; 932 mg sodium; 28 g carbohydrate; 6 g fiber; 1 g sugar; 7 g protein.
Katie Workman has written two cookbooks focused on easy, family-friendly cooking, “Dinner Solved!” and “The Mom 100 Cookbook.”